Defendants Exploit Right To Jury Trials For Minor Charges

August 11, 1991|By Maria Archangelo | Maria Archangelo,Staff writer

WESTMINSTER — Carroll defendants facing misdemeanor charges often abuse the right to trial by jury, county and state court officials say.

Carroll has one of the highest percentages of requests for jury trials -- also called jury trial prayers -- in the state, said Robert McKeever of the State Administrative Office of the Courts.

In fiscal 1990, 66 percent of the 1,665 defendants charged criminally in Carroll requested jury trials in the Circuit Court. Of those,502 were motor vehicle charges.

"Lots of times, (jury trial prayers) are done to get away from a judge in District Court or as a delaying tactic," said Carroll Circuit Court Clerk Larry Shipley.

Trials in the lower District Court are always decided by a judge, not a jury.

Because of the increasing number of cases sent to the higher court for a jury trial, months often go by before a case is rescheduled.

Of the hundreds of defendants who ask for a trial by jury each year, only 0.5 percent have their cases heard by juries. More than 99percent waive the right once they reach the county's highest court.

It is a system that frustrates prosecutors and leads witnesses andvictims to complain that their lives are interrupted unnecessarily when they have to hire baby-sitters or take several days off from their jobs to sit in court and wait -- often in vain -- for their cases to be called.

Shipley said the jury trial requests are a delaying tactic that floods court clerks with paper work and drops lesser casesinto the laps of the three circuit judges.

But county defense attorneys said most requests are not delaying tactics but part of the constitutionally guaranteed right to a fair trial. They warn against sacrificing constitutional rights for efficiency.

"Sometimes, there is a tendency to override individual rights for the sake of convenience," said Westminster lawyer Stephen Bourexis.

Carroll is not the first county to balk at the volume of jury trial requests. Baltimore and Baltimore County already have taken steps to reduce the number ofcases that go up to the Circuit Court.

In Baltimore, Circuit Administrative Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan was the force behind the change in the Maryland Rules of Practice and Procedure that allowed requestsfor jury trials to be granted the same day defendants ask for them in District Court.

Kaplan said that while "everybody told him he was insane" for proposing that jury trials be granted instantly, he didnot believe he had a choice.

"We were being buried by the number of cases going up to Circuit Court," said Kaplan.

Since Sept. 4, 1990, defendants who ask for a jury trial in Baltimore are sent the same day to a reception court. There, defendants are encouraged to workout a plea agreement acceptable to all.

If a solution cannot be worked out, the case moves to one of two misdemeanor trial courts, andthe case often is heard the same day. Under the old system, a typical day in a city district court saw 50 jury trial requests. Now, 10 to15 requests are submitted each day and only two or three are heard by juries, Kaplan said. Baltimore County has a similar system.

Carroll Administrative Circuit Judge Raymond E. Beck Sr. said that while reducing the number of jury trial prayers is desirable, requiring jurors to wait for a case that may not be heard is not.

"The three circuit judges in Carroll are very sensitive to inconveniencing the public," said Beck. "Being a voting citizen on a jury is a constitutional duty, but it's not intended to be a marathon."

Beck said he favors a proposal before the state Conference of Circuit Court Judges that would give defendants 15 days after their first court appearance tochoose a jury trial or lose their right to one.

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